Chesterton Tribune

Porter Council votes 3-2 to demolish Town Hall

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After more than seven years of controversy and discord that spanned three Town Councils, the matter’s been resolved.

Or has it?

By a 3-2 vote Tuesday the Porter Town Council decided to start the process to demolish the 1913 town hall and to go forward with Gerometta and Kinel’s 1998 architectural plans for construction of a new municipal building on that site.

The motion included rejecting two bids to purchase the existing town hall made by the non-profit Friends of Porter Inc. and Michael Henkel for Information Service Professionals.

The council had reserved the right to reject any and all bids. After the meeting, Friends attorney Cynthia Tilden said the group will review whether it has any legal recourse in light of the decision. Friends President Maureen Dresh said she thought the preservation group had addressed council questions regarding their offer.

Joining councilmen Jim Menn and Guy Grasher, who made and seconded the motion, respectively, in voting to demolish the town hall was President Kathryn Kozuszek. Council members Jennifer Granat and Michael Liebert were opposed.

When Granat and Henkel pressed Kozuszek what the motion implied as far as how and when the demolition would take place, she said more information would be forthcoming at future meetings. She also said she would contact Gerometta and Kinel about resuming the project.

Kozuszek blamed town hall supporters for not doing enough to save the historic two-story brick structure after the council voted 3-2 in April to build a new municipal building and sell the old one.

She said she found one $160,000 parcel for a new town hall and asked other council members to bring alternate building sites to her attention, but they did not. Granat said she had attempted to do so last night, but the matter was not placed on the agenda despite her request that it be.

“We owe it to our constituents to have an open discussion; this process has been flawed from the beginning,” said Granat, criticizing that the bidding was open for only 22 days.

Added Tilden, “If it was fiscally more responsible to put (a new town hall) somewhere else, you’ve decided you’ll bury your head in the sand and you aren’t going to accept it.” Menn said he did extensive research on other sites, but Granat said none of it was discussed as a group.

Grasher said the estimated $60,000 to $70,000 it will cost to raze the current building would have been used to purchase another building site, which may not be served by utilities as the existing one is. He also said the town hall should be at its current Franklin Street location, but the present structure is not worth the cost of renovating it.

Last fall, the latest architect to study the building estimated the renovation cost to be more than $588,600. A new building of comparable size was set at about $700,000.

Kozuszek said neither the Friends offer of $37,500 now and two future unspecified installments when the group renovates and resells the building, nor Henkel’s $43,850 lump sum offer, were fair and it wouldn’t be responsible to accept either. The council had sought a minimum bid of $120,000 and maintained the town hall was appraised at $140,000.

Tilden said the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana has approved initial funding for the Friends’ purchase, which could take place immediately upon all conditions being accepted. Replied Kozuszek, “If Landmarks really thought that building was such a great save, they would have come up with the full price.”

Kozuszek also said if Henkel were serious about his claim that the town hall has a questionable market value because it’s zoned residential, he would have approached the Plan Commission in hopes of a commercial rezoning. Henkel said if the council were serious about saving the town hall, it would have initiated the rezoning itself. Said Henkel after the meeting, “I can’t file for anything if I don’t own it.”

The public was allowed to speak regarding the Friends and Henkel bids prior to the vote, although there was no council discussion once the motion was made. Resident Linda Hodges was escorted by police from the community building at Kozuszek’s direction when Hodges did not stop interrupting when asked to do so.

Hodges said the town hall is special. “It’s something that represents us and the Town of Porter.”

The emotionally charged, hour-long discussion reopened scars from the past council election and gave some indication how volatile next year’s municipal races will be.

Connie Goysich, who served on a citizen feasibility committee which found the town hall was structurally suitable for renovation, defended the council.

“They made a decision. We have to say thank you for finally resolving this, and maybe we can all work together to build a new town hall,” she told the audience. “We take care of ourselves when we’re 89 years old and that poor building’s been let go and it will take tons of money to renovate it. Do we want to be renovating it for years and years?”

According to supporters, in 1998 more than 1,000 persons signed petitions to save the historic town hall.

Liebert said there is no mandate to tear it down outside some council members. He made a personal plea to Kozuszek, who in December said she would not vote to demolish the building. “Keep your word and not be a politician (who) makes promises that are broken later.”

Kozuszek said her December statement was based on her understanding that the renovation proposal was satisfactory. “I thought this would fly, we’d be able to redo that building.” She said she later learned, “It was piece-meal. It wasn’t done the way it was asked to be done. That building could never conform to the uses needed for today.”

Some residents charged Kozuszek’s decisions were politically motivated, an allegation she firmly denied.

Henkel said the council’s limitations on the bids it solicited sealed the town hall’s fate. “You say on one side you want to do what’s best for Porter but you hog tie this process so it can’t succeed (and) pretty much guarantee the outcome.”

After the meeting, Granat was asked if she will participate in the town hall project or vote no on related matters. “I will take it as it comes. I have to be fair and do what’s best for the town. I have remained completely objective.”

Resident Rita Newman, who lives east of the current town hall, asked if her property would need to be acquired. Kozuszek said she didn’t think Newman had to worry, and Granat said she would not support using eminent domain.

After the meeting, Sherill Newman said, “I’m unfortunately glad that my grandparents are dead and most of my ancestors who were in this town are gone because they went through the neglect of this building thinking at some time the council would take responsibility for it and never did. I’m glad they can’t see the mockery that’s been made of this. Many other buildings in a lot worse shape have been saved.”

Said Goysich earlier, “This might not be the best decision some of us wanted it might have been. Who cares? It’s done. Now we can move forward working on roads, the stormwater or sidewalks.”

After several years of studies and competing plans, the 1998 Town Council voted to build a new town hall, but the project was mired in controversy and abandoned, left for the current council to inherit.

Menn said the uncertainty has been going on too long and needed to stop so other town issues can be dealt with; it’s time to start healing the decade’s wounds, he added.

Said Granat, “I guarantee you there will be no mending.”



Posted 7/24/2002